Hill remains at odds with White House over spending

Although Congress will not be in session in December, appropriators are hoping next month to speed up negotiations on the 11 remaining fiscal 2003 spending bills, with GOP leaders eager to get the bills wrapped into an omnibus package before the president's State of the Union address in late January.

But as this year has shown, nothing is a sure thing, and it is still unclear how everything is going to be resolved. A meeting at the White House last Friday among President Bush, House Appropriations Chairman C.W. (Bill) Young, R-Fla. and incoming Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, failed to clarify the situation, although it appears that they agreed, at least in principle, to try to end up at the president's budget level.

The White House is now saying it would accept a final fiscal 2003 total of about $750 billion, which is roughly the original request of $749 billion plus additional amendments sent to Congress this year. "The president made clear that [appropriators] should be at or about his level," said an OMB spokeswoman.

Stevens this week called the figure a "target," but some staffers said the figure remains unrealistic. "They're still asking us to assemble legislation that would have passed [at that number] if it could," said a Republican House Appropriations Committee aide.

While the House could accept probably nine of the 11 unfinished bills under that total, the aide said appropriators remain at least $1 billion short on the fiscal 2003 Commerce-Justice-State spending bill, given the push for extra money for homeland security items.

Meanwhile, the fiscal 2003 Labor-HHS appropriations bill, which went nowhere in the House when it was set at the president's requested level, remains "several billion dollars" short, the aide said. On the Senate side, it may be much more difficult to end up at the $750 billion total.

Senate appropriators are hoping to trim their original bills close to what the president is asking, but, depending on the calculation, they are well over $15 billion above that amount, given the basic $9 billion that separates both chambers, plus emergency spending and other add-ons.

One of those is highway money. The Senate set the total at $31.8 billion, with the House agreeing to $27.7 billion. But House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Don Young, R-Alaska, threatened to bring down the continuing resolution last week over the reluctance of House members to boost the figure to the Senate's level, and House leaders placated him by saying they could fix it in January.

But an administration official this week indicated the White House was still not prepared to go with the higher amount. In addition, lawmakers are looking to trim a drought aid proposal that once totaled $6 billion, but the administration is still insisting that any extra money for drought-stricken farmers in the Midwest come from existing farm relief programs.